CRM Journal

Book Review

Searching for Yellowstone: Ecology and Wonder in the Last Wilderness

By Paul Schullery. Helena: Montana Historical Society Press, 2004; 337 pp., illustrations, notes, index; paper $19.95.


Searching for Yellowstone: Ecology and Wonder in the Last Wilderness should be required reading for anyone involved in park management, conservation, and ecology; it is certainly recommended reading for anyone interested in those topics. The book sets the complexities of park management and policy development within a historical context and focuses on our understanding of nature and how attitudes towards the management of nature have evolved over time. Regarding Yellowstone National Park specifically, Schullery leaves the reader with a deep appreciation for what it takes to protect the "Last Wilderness" from three million visitors per year (and counting).

A writer and educator currently working part-time at Yellowstone, Schullery knows first hand the challenges park managers face, having himself worked 12 years for the National Park Service. He takes the reader on a memorable journey through the prehistory and history of Yellowstone, from 14,000 years ago to the present day, in an effort to understand this "exasperatingly elusive thing we call nature" and figure out how to balance nature against the ever-growing demands placed on the park. That search for Yellowstone continues today with each new visitor and will change as knowledge and attitudes change. "We say that Yellowstone National Park was established on March 1, 1872," Schullery writes, "but in fact we have never stopped establishing Yellowstone."

The early chapters dealing with prehistoric Yellowstone are well researched. They offer a detailed account of what archeologists and environmental historians believe the park was like before the arrival of European Americans. Prehistoric Yellowstone underwent dramatic climatic and other ecological changes. Native peoples followed the retreating ice northward and relied on an abundance of new plants and animals for survival. Early evidence of Native Americans in the Yellowstone area includes a Clovis projectile point fragment made of local obsidian 11,000 years ago. Schullery points out that "less than five percent of the park has been surveyed for archaeological sites," suggesting that people have barely begun to understand the relationship between pre-contact American Indians and Yellowstone.

After pre-contact Yellowstone, Schullery looks at the early accounts of explorers, mountain men, and fur trappers, and relates some of the first tall tales about the park and its establishment. Although many people were involved in the creation of Yellowstone National Park, popular myth has it that one man—Cornelius Hedges—had suggested the idea of a park during a "discovery" expedition in 1870. In reality, the park developed like many parks—out of a series of decisions and actions involving people driven by, in Schullery's words, "love and fear, wonder and boosterism, awe and greed, with a desperate measure of high hopes."

After considering the establishment of the park, Schullery examines it growth and evolution over time. Early on, when the purpose of Yellowstone had yet to be defined, its superintendents struggled with how to manage the park. Park managers today still struggle with how to protect the park for the next generation while at the same time accommodate increasing numbers of visitors each year. Schullery reports that Yellowstone had 52,000 visitors per year in 1915, 2 million by 1965, and 3 million annually since 1992. One measure of the human impact on the park—the number of animals killed by automobiles each year—attests to the need for a comprehensive park management plan.

Schullery writes eloquently about the struggles of managing grizzly bear, bison, elk, and wolf populations. He approaches the issues objectively and gives equal time to the opinions of different interest groups. He suggests that most, if not all, the ecological debates at Yellowstone in recent years have been between "the people inclined to try to stabilize and control the ecological system and those inclined to let the system take its own direction." He concludes that the "obvious lesson may be that we are a long way from solving the problem partly because we have failed even to agree on what the problem is." Though he provides some thoughtful insight into the important issue of park management, he leaves it to future generations to solve that problem.

Katy Coddington
University of Idaho